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62 The story I always tell is when I was in college, it was the late sixties, Ali’s in exile now, okay. A Saturday afternoon. I want to say it was at an NIT basketball game or something like that in Madison Square Garden. And Ali walks through the arena. He’s wearing a white T-shirt and a black leather jacket. And the black leather jacket wasn’t Gucci, you know, it was really a badass outfit in that era. Ali was really getting hissed by the crowd. It wasn’t this celebrated moment, “There goes the champ,” okay? . . . Cosell was the prime voice for Ali’s defense. . . . And I think that’s why a lot of people, a lot of America, disliked Cosell as much as others revered him. —Television producer Joseph Valerio, interview with the author In his dual biography of Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell, sportswriter Dave Kindred tells the story of a meeting that took place in 1967, the day that the New York State Athletic Commission took away the boxer’s license to fight and stripped him of his heavyweight title. According to Kindred, the meeting included writer Norman Mailer, New York Daily News columnist Pete Hamill, journalist/Paris Review editor/ gadfly George Plimpton, and Village Voice reporter Jack New- field. At a table in Greenwich Village’s fabled Lion’s Head bar, this group of self-described “left-wingers, alcoholics, and other bohemians” decided to take action in defense of Ali, whom they saw as a victim of racism. His banishment from boxing, they felt, was a blatant violation of the United States Constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, guaranteeing due process of law against the power of any institution to deprive a person arbitrarily of life, liberty, or property. (The Supreme Court would later agree, in an 8–0 decision, with Justice Thurgood Marshall recusing himself.) This “committee” decided that their cause needed a voice, one prominent 4 Telling It Like It Was in the Civil Rights Era 63 t e l l i n g i t l i k e i t wa s i n t h e c i v i l r i g h t s e r a enough and credible enough to take Ali’s cause to the nation. Their choice was Howard Cosell.1 Plimpton took their request to the broadcaster. According to Kindred , Cosell said no, expressing a fear that if he spoke out, he would be assassinated by “some crazed redneck sharpshooter” firing through his office window. Cosell reportedly told Plimpton: “My sympathies are obviously with Muhammad. He has no greater friend among the whites[,] . . . but the time, at this stage in this country’s popular feeling, is not correct for such an act on my part.”2 This story suggests that Cosell was not the only, nor even the most courageous, white journalist to come to Ali’s defense. Yet despite Cosell’s reluctance to join forces with such an esteemed “committee” in support of Muhammad Ali, he was a logical candidate for these writers to pick as their public voice; in fact, his was probably the only voice on network television that might have been sympathetic. Only two decades before, American sports institutions had been bastions of white privilege, stability, and exclusion. That they would become the site of political activism—not only among African Americans but also among a number of young, rebellious athletes more generally—turned sports such as football, baseball, boxing, and basketball into significant cultural battlegrounds over issues of race, masculinity, and the cultural norms and ideals of post–World War II American society. Few if any sports reporters were in the same position to take on these issues as Howard Cosell. Jim Spence, as coordinating producer of ABC’s Wide World of Sports, worked closely with Cosell on coverage of Ali, one of the biggest stories in sports during the 1960s. This was at a time, of course, when prizefights were major sporting events and boxing champions were superstars. Cosell was perhaps the only television reporter who could have brought Ali to audiences in such an intimate and critical way, says Spence, who credits Cosell’s intelligence, his political courage , and of course his sympathy with Ali for the relationship that the broadcaster and the boxer would forge. “The two developed a great chemistry, so that Howard was able to ask the hard, direct questions and evoke answers no one else...


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